From Classrooms to State House: How these 6 African Presidents rose from humble mud-thatched classrooms to occupying the most powerful seat on the land

Kenya’s second President, Daniel Arap Moi hands a trophy to a student. (Dailynation)
  • As the world marks the World Teachers’ Day, education remains an investment, and one of the most critical investments one can make. 
  • At the core of education is a well trained teacher who moulds children to become the leaders of tomorrow.
  • This year’s theme “Young Teachers: The future of the Profession.” explores ways of attracting and keeping the brightest minds and young talents in the profession.

Anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela once said ‘“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” the same sentiments still rings true today long after his demise.

As the world marks the World Teachers’ Day, education remains an investment, and one of the most critical investments one can make. 

Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, reducing poverty, creating a sustainable planet, preventing needless deaths and illness, to fostering peace among many other benefits.

At the core of education is a well trained teacher who moulds children to become the leaders of tomorrow. Without teachers there’s no education

This year’s theme “Young Teachers: The future of the Profession.” Seeks to address some of the issues central for attracting and keeping the brightest minds and young talents in the profession.

The official event will take place on Monday, 7 October at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in collaboration with the convening partners, including UNICEF, UNDP, the International Labour Organization and Education International and will be celebrated globally with various events.

“With the theme: “Young Teachers: The Future of the Profession,” we recognize the critical importance of reaffirming the value of the teaching mission. We call upon governments to make teaching a profession of first choice for young people. We also invite teacher unions, private sector employers, school principals, parent-teacher associations, school management committees, education officials and teacher trainers to share their wisdom and experiences in promoting the emergence of a vibrant teaching force. Above all, we celebrate the work of dedicated teachers around the world who continue to strive every day to ensure that “inclusive and equitable quality education” and the promotion of “lifelong learning opportunities for all” become a reality in every corner of the globe." Reads the joint message by Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization, Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF Achim Steiner, Administrator, UNDP and David Edwards, General Secretary, Education International, on World Teachers’ Day.

Considering that, here are six African presidents who were teachers long before they joined politics, effectively swapping classrooms for parliamentary chambers.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Africa’s first woman president and Liberia former President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, swapped lecture halls for parliamentary chambers.

Shortly before she became a president, she was working as an associate professor of Governance at the Ghana Institute of Professional Studies (GIMPA) in Ghana.

Kenneth Kaunda

Zambia’s revolutionary leader and the first president of the country was a teacher before he decided to join politics.’

The 95-year-old leader attended the Munali Training Centre from 1941-1943. After completion of his studies, he went on to teach at the Upper Primary School in Lubwa in 1943. He was also the headmaster at the school from 1944 to 1947.

In 1948, he left teaching and founded the farmers’ cooperative in a copper mining area.

He couldn’t stay away from teaching though and from 1948-1949 he served as the headmaster at Mufulira Upper School.

He is credited with improving the education levels in Zambia. During his presidency he implemented policy that provided children with free school supplies such as pens, pencils and exercise books. Children were given these supplies regardless of their parents’ financial situation.

Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi

Kenya’s second President, Daniel Arap Moi was an illustrious teacher long before he joined politics.

The 95-year-old leader was educated at mission and government schools. In 1949 he joined Kigumo Teachers College where he trained as a teacher.

His last posting in education was as assistant principal of Tambach Government African Teachers' College. From there he went on to teach at government training schools.

In 1955 Moi left teaching and joined politics after he was selected to join the legislative Council (Legco).

Some of his key achievements for the country include promoting education and raising literacy levels across the country. He introduced the 8-4-4 education system whose emphasis was on practical and vocational training.

To encourage children to attend school, he unveiled free school milk programme, which endeared him to the children, their parents and teachers.

The free school milk programme is said to have raised primary school enrolment by 23.3 percent from 2,994,991 in 1978 to 3,698,216 in 1979.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

Tanzania’s founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere was born on April 13, 1922 in Butiama, on the eastern shore of lake Victoria in north west Tanganyika.

After he completed his secondary education at Tabora Government Secondary School, he went on, to train as a teacher at Makerere University in Kampala (Uganda). 

Upon graduating, he taught for three years and then went on a government scholarship to study history and political economy for his Master of Arts at the University of Edinburgh (he was the first Tanzanian to study at a British university and only the second to gain a university degree outside Africa.

On his return to Tanganyika, Nyerere was forced by the colonial authorities to choose between politics and teaching. He was reported as saying that he was a schoolmaster by choice and a politician by accident. 

Kwame Nkrumah

Sub-Saharan Africa first President and Ghana’s first head of state Kwame Nkrumah horned his leadership skills in classrooms.

Nkrumah was a pupil teacher after completing secondary school. In 1930, Nkrumah went on to obtain a Teacher’s Certificate from Prince of Wales College at Achimota and was posted to a Catholic school in Elmina in 1931.

In 1932, he was made the headmaster of a school in Axim where he started a literary society called the Nzima Literary Society. 

Even after joining politics, Nkrumah never forgot about his teaching career and he helped set up the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana to encourage academic research in Africa, by Africans from Africa.

Robert Mugabe

Born in 1924, the third child of a carpenter and catechism teacher, in the Matibiri village in the Zvimba district of what was then known as Southern Rhodesia worked as a teacher before joining politics.

Mugabe was a gifted student and his education was supported by missionary teachers. He was trained as a teacher in a Roman Catholic mission school. 

Between 1956 and 1960 he taught in Ghana.

At 25, he received a scholarship to attend the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, the alma mater of several of southern Africa’s liberation icons, including Nelson Mandela.


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